Feb 062017
 

It is election season, as it usually is the case in India.

Which means, we the people, are subject to full on rhetoric, revisionism, silliness, and of course, empty promises. And, this isn’t one party or the other. It is the whole blooming tribe (or as they would say in Hindi netaon ki jaati) that is trying to up the ante on being silly enough to make the headlines, get spoken up, rouse outrage, and then ride out the outrage, till the next outrage.  After all, as we all know, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Don’t believe me, search for articles on the Trump campaign. The more outrageous his statements, the firmer his base became.

Normally, i avoid the temptation to rant about election speeches. One expects them to be outlandish. I don’t even publicly laugh at acronyms; not because i am scared, i am not, but because it just helps make stuff like this the new norm. I have spent 20 years of my life dealing with management consultants of various shapes and forms – and acronyms,  are the norm. We laugh at work, we laugh in public life. And we move on. But, i digress. This isn’t about acronyms. But, this. This is just too much

 


Election rhetoric is quite one thing, and reality is quite another.

180 million people. many of whom loathe us, and want to destroy us.  Most of whom will not lift a finger to  help. They may like us as individuals, but not as India.  Parts of us may speak similar sounding languages. Parts of us may have common history. But, most of us don’t.

And, suggestions of a referendum, even as election rhetoric, is wrong. Think of all the soldiers who have died. Those who have been beheaded. Think of all the breach of promises. Think of 26/11. Think of the Bombay Blasts. Think of all the terror attacks. And, support of terror groups. And, think, if for 70 years Pakistan could have maintained hostilities against India, without the tacit support of the people.

Not that they are clamouring to join us, not that we have got a red carpet ready.

But, thoughts like these need to be countered, when they come up. Before they become the new normal.

Yes, he has the right to say what he wants. But, as Home Minister, he is also answerable to us, the people.

Seriously, there needs to be a Private Member’s bill that prevents the executive from campaigning for the 5 years that they are running the Government. Go do your work. Let the party campaign. Govern the nation, that is your job. not campaigning.

 

 

Jan 282017
 

The Imperious Houndess

As she enters her 14th year, the Queen of our home has gotten more imperious, if such a thing is possible. She has got her non verbal communication down to a tee. 14 dog years, is approximately 90 human years, so we have a dog who is very ancient. Barking takes up too much energy. So she conserves her energy, and stares, and stares, and stares, till her gaze sears into your back, and you pay heed.

She has taken to sleeping most of the day. And, most activities make her very tired. At nights, when i get home from work, she gives me the “my paws are aching look”. I sit next to her and massage her legs, and her paws. She licks my hand all over as thanks. I call her my ‘grand mother hound”, she snarls, and all is well.

When we get a dog home, we sign up for a pup. And, part of us believe that the dog will stay the same way for the rest of their lives. But dogs grow up, grow old, grow weary, and fall ill. There was a time when she could jump on to the dining table without any effort. Now she can barely get into the car – even when i move the seat, and let her climb in and sit on the floor.

The one thing that hasn’t changed, is her playfulness. She tries even now to play with us. once a day. Almost like she knows we need it more for our wellbeing, than because she has the energy to play with us. But what starts as a game, ends as a full body massage for her … so it is kind of win win.

There are days, when darkness overwhelms me, and i think of a life when she is gone. I can’t. I know that she will go, sooner rather than later. Intellecutally i have accepted that. But, just the thought of it, gets my eyes to give rise to rivulets of tears. The heart  feels heavy – like it is going to break with the grief, and then from no where she comes to me and bullies me out of the darkness.

This is a picture from a few years ago, shot in Lonavala – her favorite place.

Jan 262017
 

raees-7591

First day, first show – first time ever (i think) in my life ….

Raees tells the Icarus  like rise and fall from grace of Raees Alam, the son of a bangarwaali (scrap seller is the nearest English word i could find). Raees is brought up in the late 70’s era in Fatehpura (Gujarat) by his mother (a fantastic cameo by Sheeba Chaddha ), with a one point philosophy,”koi dhanda chota nahi hota aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahi hota‘.  It is a line that helps her maintain her dignity even when a policeman tries to intimidate her, in the aftermath of a anti liquor raid that has failed. Raees grows up from being a school kid who transports liquor in his school bag, to being one of the major players in the Gujarat underworld. In his rise to the top, he is chased by honest cop Jaideep Ambalal Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqi); and it is this, almost erotic, relationship that is the lynch-pin of the film. the scenes with the two of them are the best, and the  screen crackles with energy with they are playing off each other.

This is a plot we have seen before. Man comes from humble beginnings and becomes a ‘Godfather’. A don, but a savior of his community. Afoul of the law, but friends with lawmakers. There is a certain ambivalence in the morality. But, you root for the man who is, technically, the villain. This is Godfather, both 1 &2, Nayakan, Deewar, Shakti, Ganga Jamuna, Dalapati – and, the theme itself is fascinating. What happens to a ‘good’ man aligned with the wrong side. None of the central characters in the films mentioned above, got to the top without blood shed. The blood shed, and often public blood shed, is what builds the fear, the authority, the power base. And, the brutality at one end, is compensated with compassion for ‘my people’ at the other. And, Raees is a god father of the old kind. Although participation in community religious activities is part of his ethos, and the Shia Muslim part of him is part and parcel of the character, (the matam in the begining, is brilliantly shot)the only time you see him praying (as a one on one communication with a higher power)  is at his mother’s grave. And, I find that aspect quite fascinating. In a way it is a throw back to films of an older generation – with the mother as the moral core (Mother India, Deewar ) of the family, as well as the full fledged participation and festivities that bring communities together – and the community is the community of the labour class.

But, if the plot is as old as  films, the story of Raees Alam is new. The nuances of the character, the setting (Gujarat that is gritty, bleak, and with an underlying sense of dry humour), and the revival of a dynamic, and a segment that has not been seen in main stream Hindi films for long,  the pan religious working class/labour class – where poverty unites more than religion divides. This is a dynamic most of us growing up in the 70’s and 80’s saw in movies. One of the things that director Rahul Dolakhia does very well, is create the 80’s vibe – be it in terms of music on radio, or Laila mein Laila featured on a caberet dancer (Sunny Leone), or the characterisations of various characters in the film. The references are real, and give the film a context of time and space. When Raees Alam is beating up a seth into agreeing to pay the dues of his millworkers, there is a hat tip to the greatest film on labour issues in modern India, Kala Patthar. The other thing that Dolakhia does well is visually narrate the scenes in which Rais stamps down on someone who has crossed into his territory. The machismo posturing, the sheer outpouring of testosterone, and the rapid spiral downwards to a a scenario that is going to blow. The scenes that bring out the sheer single focued ruthless brutality of Raees are built up the best, and shot the best. The fight sequence in the abattoir, the scene where he goes to kill his mentor (Atul Kulkarni in another fine cameo), the riot scene, and the show down with Musa (Narendra Jha) are very well done.

Shah Rukh carries the film. Raees Alam is is brutal, ruthless, and a cold blooded killer. And, yet you feel for the character. I predict he is going to bring the pathan suit, kohled eyes, and banyans back into fashion. The man oozes screen presence, and in this film you don’t see too much of the superstar, just the actor. Nawaz is good, completely understated, and has some of the best lines in the film. Mahira – is seriously underwhelming. She just seems so overawed by being in a film, that she never manages to break out of the tv actor mode. Zeeshan is a good support role, but you wished that the writers had bothered to give him something beyond being a good friend. And, I think that this is the problem with the film – Dolakhia tries to cram too many themes, and too many interesting characters,  into a two and a half hour film, and none of them is ever explored with any nuance. This could have been a 10 hour narcos kind of series, but, i am nto sure that it would be a commercially viable project. But, the acting, the characters, and the editing, s the film tightly paced – though the pace drops in the second half, when the film focuses more on the ‘god father’ part of Raees, and less on the ruthless rise to the top of the crime pyramid. There is an inexplicable pregnancy that seems to go on for ever, and for ever. And, the purpose of both Mahira and the pregnancy, seems to be to build the human side of rather ruthless killer.

Is it worth a watch – definitely. I am possibly going back to watch it again, next week.

Jan 232017
 

I Write for the DNA today

To understand the issues surrounding Jallikattu, it helps to look at a changing India and the fault lines that arise from it.

The first thing we need to understand is that Urban India is made up of immigrants. Immigrants from rural to urban areas and one region to the other, where primarily the reasons to move are both, economic and social. While we follow the customs that our ancestors did, they are more in the nature of rituals than in the spirit of these customs. For example, Holi in the city is fun and about colours and water; however, in the rural scenario, it is far more than just a festival of colours. It is also a very important harvest festival where people thank the land for the bounty and celebrate a better tomorrow.

In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is the harvest festival which, in the cities, is often reduced to the food we cook – Pongal, a type of khichdi. And while we may carry forward traditions like tying sugarcane outside our homes and decorating pots and pans with haldi and kumkum, it really is not the same as in the villages. There, it is about genuine and heartfelt worship of the tools of the trade, the animals who help with the crop, and the land that gives the bounty. Mattu Pongal, during the Pongal festivities, is done to honour all farm animals, of which Jallikattu is also a part. Most of the festivities are built around thanksgiving and community congregation. Every region in India has its own set of harvest festivals. Most of these cut across community, caste, gender, and economic status – which means, everyone involved in the rural economy participates enthusiastically as equals. Is religion a part of it? Yes, but not in the way most city people understand religion. Rural India is far more fluid in the matters of religion and far stricter in terms of caste. Urban India is the other way around. Harvest festivals are when most of the differences are set aside and you celebrate as one. For long, the concept of village art, music, culture, sports, and dance were looked down upon with the underlying message that villages had to adopt the ways of the more ‘cultured’ urban dwellers. Less than 20 years ago, the joke, in rather poor taste, would be ‘the only culture in villages was agriculture’. However, with increasing education, prosperity, political participation and rural transformation, Rural India and rural culture is making its voice heard. It is partly in this context that we need to understand Jallikattu.For most commentators and activists (city-based), the choice is binary – between animal rights and cultural practice. For the rural economy though, it is far more multi-layered – economy, culture, tradition, achievement, aspiration, self-image, and a sense of community are all tied to the festivities.

(image from here)

The second equally important thing to understand is the concept of the Tamil identity which subsumes all other identities that one may have. It cuts across your birth area, religion, caste and education to make everyone in the state a Tamil first. To feel the sense of Tamil identity does not need you to be born a Tamilian, so it’s less about birth and about the emotion. There are enough and more non-Tamil borns who consider themselves (and are considered to be) Tamilians. Rajnikanth, MGR, Jayalalitha, Khushbhoo – just to name a few.It also cuts across religious lines and caste lines. I cannot quite recall any other group where the sense of identity is so strong and so pervasive.The last time the Tamil identity came into play in a big way was during the anti-Hindi protests in the 1960s. The consideration of the imposition of Hindi as a national language was enough for the Tamilians to believe there was a threat to their identity and culture. The Central Government of the day, capitulated. Needless to say, Hindi is one of the official languages not the national language.

The third thing to understand is that regional parties in India are going through a flux. Most of the issues are to do with succession. Be it Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu or the Nationalist Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. The ruling party of Tamil Nadu, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is no different. After the death of Jayalalithaa, the power seems to be split between Chief Minister Panneerselvam and Sasikala who was Amma’s companion and is now the General Secretary of AIADMK.The Jallikattu protests were vital in both, asserting the claims to protect the Dravidian identity (The D in both DMK and AIADMK stands for Dravidian) and the Tamil way of life. No political party in Tamil Nadu can stand against the assertion of the Tamil pride. And for parties like the DMK and AIADMK that are looking to revive their game and become relevant to a new Tamil Nadu, this was a Supreme Court-sent opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the protest, while claiming them as their own and the victory as its result.

The final thing to understand is that there will be organisations – NGOs or even the State – that will challenge local customs because they are no longer in sync with the law. Be it child marriage or animal cruelty, polygamy or devdasi cult, many practices were culturally acceptable once but legally challenged later. This will continue and it will step on the toes of the ‘customs’ – and the local custom will fight back. It is all a part of being a thriving Democratic Republic. If everyone agreed on everything, it would be a terribly boring place to live in. And whatever else you may say about India, we are not boring.

The recent capitulation by the Central Government by pushing through a hastily drafted ordinance and its request to the apex court not to rule on the validity of this ordinance, is the culmination of these four seemingly non-connected aspects.

The protests to hold Jallikattu have been going on for a few years. This year’s demonstrations have been as much about Jallikattu as they have been about the other things. There has been an underlying sense of resentment in the state towards the way the ‘North’ has been treating them.The North is a combination of the Centre, the Supreme Court, the media, and anything else that is not from Tamil Nadu. Be it the Kaveri water dispute, the treatment of the refugees from Sri Lanka, or the reaction to the Chennai floods, or the Hindi used in government advertising — it has all been building up for a while. It has been seen as a gradual whittling away of federalism and the Tamil identity and culture. The last rebuff from the Supreme Court on Jallikattu was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Centre and the State reacted and peaceful protests by Tamilians across the state have led to an ordinance that overturns a Supreme Court ruling on the game.

The question is what happens the next time a community decides it is going to use state/ cultural/ regional/ tribal/ caste pride to protest a law which it believes is against their culture. And protests to carry on their way of life? The best Jallikattu analogy here would be that individual sub-cultures can be like raging bulls, the one who wins would steer the bull his way, not one who gets steered by the bull. Because if you get steered by a raging bull, it is going to gore you sooner or later. It is a lesson India learned after Rajiv Gandhi yielded on Shah Bano. One can only hope that we don’t have to learn the same lesson all over again.

Jan 192017
 

The nature of truth has changed.  From an era, where one looked at proof and evidence to discuss what was right and wrong, it moved almost seamlessly to one, where we look for news content that confirms our biases. From a world where people believed, “if it is in the news, it must be true” it has moved to a place, where most of us take what is offered in news with a pinch (and sometimes a sack) of salt. And, while a lot of this distrust has been created by those who want to offer lies as the new truth –  – agenda setting by interested parties — much of the blame also lies with the media that is too busy running stories to figure if what they are running is verified and true. It is no surprise, therefore, that trust in the media is at an all time low. While the following figure is for western audiences, it is reaching the same stages in India.

 

Reuters on Trust in Mass Media

Trust in Mass Media by Age source : Reuters Institute “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2017

Today, when we look at the mass news media, it is less about getting to know what is going on in the world around us, and how it impacts us, and more about listening to polar opposites debating each other, without any seeming conclusion or consensus on topics, or issues. And, there is a very good reason for this.

The Media is the 4th pillar of any Democracy – the other three being the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. But, unlike the other 3 pillars, the Media is also wholly and fully profit driven. The others, at least explicitly, do not state a profit goal. The media, however, owned by private corporate and facing a competitive marketplace has to deliver a three pronged goal – news that upholds democracy, increase their reach with   audiences, and news consumption (and sharing). One of the three has to give, and invariably it is news that upholds democratic values that die a unsung death. It is far easier to consume what a Bollywood Star thinks of demonetisation, than figuring nuances of monetary and fiscal policy which more serious authors write about (whether pro or anti).

The media is given special concessions, across the world, because of it’s historical role in upholding democracy. In India this was in the form of subsidised rates for newsprint, cheap rents, land given, and tax breaks. It was given because of the belief that the media would perform it’s function – be the watch dog of the ‘system’ on behalf of the people. Ask questions that needed to be asked, and persist till they were answered.

However, that hasn’t been the case. For the last 20 years, big media has been running purely for profit – and not for any of the duties that it is supposed to perform. It’s owners are corporatised, and often run industrial projects in other areas. The media then becomes a vehicle that not only legitimises their excesses, but also gives them undue influence on issues of policy. For example, if a large builder owned a media house, what would be it’s stand on land acquisition. Similarly if a large mining company owned media interests, how would the media deal with tribals being displaced so that mining can proceed. With media companies taking stakes in start up ventures, in lieu of advertising, can you actually have a balanced analysis on the start ups and how they are performing. Finally, when politicians and political parties own news media vehicles, what kind of monitor do you expect the media to play ?

The media in India, has unfortunately become like a cop in a 1960’s movie. they turn up after everything is over, and asks inane questions like “why do you think it happened”, and ‘how do you feel about it’. A simple example, when 26/11 was in progress, the big media noise was on how the NSG was delayed in getting to Mumbai, because they had no airport space allocated to them. And, while it was a valid criticism, the role of the watchdog is to flag it earlier. A watchdog that barks after the thief has stolen your belongings is of no particular use.  Unless we want to redefine the role of the media as the coroner, as opposed to the watchdog.

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Right now, while mainstream media chases eyeballs, and puts out news to something below the lowest common denominator, to collect advertising revenue that is a few rupees per a million eye balls, the question is what is the future of news ? If your audience is sold at next to nothing, then the value of that audience is next to nothing. It is a bubble waiting to burst, and world over it has begun bursting.  Newspapers that are chasing advertising revenues, keeping the cost of subscription fixed, are shutting down editions; digital only platforms that are putting out ‘me too’ news are figuring that the cost of consumer acquisition is so high, that it is neither possible, nor profitable even in the long run

I think at a very simple level it is acceptance of the fact that consumption of news has never been a mass audience activity. At any point of time in the last 100 years, the consumption of news was lower than the consumption of entertainment. To try and drive numbers without a focus on quality or veracity is something that news organisations are doing without check. It is this fakeness in news that is pushing consumers to pick out other things with similar sounding headlines.

The second thing is the concept of ‘balance’ in news. A balanced piece of news is where you take opinions from all stakeholders involved in that news and contextualise it in the overall story. For example, if you were talking about tribals being evicted to set up industries, there will be the tribal view, the political view, the economic rationale, the industrial rationals – so that the reader can make up their mind on what to think. However, if you run this story with only one perspective, then the story will be unbalanced. Look at all the stories that you have been reading, and ask yourself if you are getting the balanced view. An additional point to remember is that there are things where the concept of balance does not exist. For example, if you are discussing rape, then the counter balance to those who oppose rape, is not some one who talks about rape being a ‘natural’ occurrence in society. Or if you are talking about the age of the earth, your counter is not a religious fundamentalist who talks about the world being created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C, And, no, when we discuss the marvels of modern medicine, you cannot have a person discussing how an elephant head was transplanted on a human being before time began. These are good conversations in the privacy of your home, or in a party. But, without evidence, this is not news. Mainstream News media today, is crying about hoaxes. But, the problem is that they perpetuated and popularised those putting out the hoaxes, as experts.

The third thing is that everyone is not your audience. They never can be. ‘Who is your audience’ if you ask this basic question of anyone running a media set up, the response invariably will be 14+ (those over 14 years of age). from 14 to 94 is a lot of age cohorts. And, beyond age, there are interest cohorts. If you try and be everything for everyone, you most likely will end up being no one for anyone. Fix the audience you want to serve, and aim your content at them. There will be a spillover in terms of audience. But, that is a better than aiming for everyone and getting people who flit in and out of your site and content.

The fourth thing is don’t be afraid of charging money for your content. If you start giving things away for free, and expect advertising money to deliver your profits, then don’t cry if your serious content does not deliver. if your audience sees value in your content they will pay. If they don’t see value in your content they won’t pay. If your content is aimed at the lowest common denominator that is flitting in and out of your offerings, there is little or no engagement, and advertising money is going to start chasing engagement rather than clicks – sooner rather than later.

Finally, it is less about customer acquisition than customer retention. You can spend all the money you want on branding, marketing and getting the customer to visit you. The question is what next ? are they going to come back? and, the question that plagues the Indian news media – especially in a digital era . if your customer gets his or her news through their social media feeds, then how much are you willing to sacrifice for baiting the click ? Are you, as a media organisation, ubiquitous for all, or are you focused on your core audience and targeting your communication to them.

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In 2017, i see the media, world over, debating all these, in some form or the other. I also don’t have much hope from most of the established players, who are selling kilos of eyeballs for next to nothing to advertisers. Where i see some glimmer of light is with those entities who have declared they will focus on quality, and get customers to pay (nominal amounts) for that quality. And, i see hope in newer entrants who have eschewed clickbait for quality.